Relax in Australia's adventure capital
AT 4AM, we are awoken from our slumber to shower, eat and get onto a bus. As it drives along very dark roads, we are surprised by how little traffic there is in Cairns at night.
The driver says he does not know where exactly he is taking us. The pilot has indicated the area where the lift-off might occur. But the precise spot will depend on the wind.
After some radio to-and-fro with the pilot on-site, the driver takes us to a dark field where we can barely make out a flaccid balloon on the ground.
We meet the pilot from Hot Air (hotair.com.au/cairns) who tells us that we have to be up this early because the air is cold, adding: "When we fill the balloon with hot air, the difference in temperature will carry us up."
It takes less than 30 minutes for the propane burners to inflate the balloon. As we climb nervously into the basket - the only thing to separate us soon from a long and fatal drop - the morning sun appears on the horizon and adds colour to the earth and sky.
As the balloon slowly leaves terra firma, we take in the gorgeous swirl of morning mist that covers the ground like angel hair. Soon, that too disappears to reveal lush undulating land, long country roads, farm plots stitched like quilts and far-reaching vistas.
So this is what birds see when they fly. The hot-air balloon may be man's oldest flying technology, but it still offers the best unhindered views among flying craft. Every seat in the house is the best one.
The gentler side of Cairns, long touted as the adventure capital of Australia, begins to reveal itself.
FRESHEST, PUREST FOOD
With its mild climate and small population of 156,000, the bountiful city of Cairns is a popular destination among adventure travellers. The breathtaking Great Barrier Reef and massive Daintree Rainforest have never seemed more alluring, now with SilkAir's direct weekly flight to Cairns.
But there is a leisurely side to the region that is often overlooked. Food lovers, for one, should take a trip to the Atherton Tablelands located west to south-west of Cairns. The Tablelands are a fertile plateau where the freshest, purest food can be found. It is easy to rent a car and drive through it in a day with a basic map.
Along the way, stop and dine at numerous vineyards, plantations and dairies, which often boast their own cafes selling coffee beans, wines, cheeses, macadamia nuts, avocados, strawberries and other fresh produce. There is just about every kind of tropical fruit growing here, including lychee, mango, jackfruit, mangosteen and dragonfruit.
The Coffee Works (136 Mason Street, Mareeba) has a wide range of homemade coffee, tea, liqueur and chocolate. It even has its own coffee museum with some 2,000 exhibits for the coffee fan to gawk at.
Another similar attraction is the Gallo Dairyland (Atherton Malanda Road and East Barron Road) which produces award-winning gourmet cheeses and handcrafted chocolates.
Good restaurants in Cairns naturally use fresh ingredients. But in the Tablelands, you are dining right next to the farm where the food is grown. A 20-minute drive away from that farm could be a stunning waterfall, tranquil lake or majestic rainforest.
For a long time, the Atherton Tablelands were a well-kept secret among Queenslanders. But there are now numerous food-trail tours to give you an insider's guide to the area.
Another overlooked attraction is an idyllic beach town with friendly faces, no traffic lights, great boutique shops and not a single fast-food restaurant in sight. Its name is Port Douglas, 70km north of Cairns. The Australians themselves rank it as one of their favourite towns, and numerous Hollywood celebrities make it a point to stop here for a few days when they are in the country. Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson and the Clintons count among its fans.
With a population of just 3,200 people, its finest asset is the long and wide beach that seems to go on forever. You could spend hours here just strolling, sunbathing or reading a book. Because of its sheer size, you can find a spot that is at least 15m away from the next sunbather, even in summer. No pets, smoking or food vendors are allowed on the beach, which helps preserve its pristine condition.
When the sun goes down, check out the great restaurants with award-winning chefs. Salsa Bar & Grill, Sassi Cucina e Bar and Port O'Call are some of our guide's recommendations for dining.
And, if you are travelling with children, a good hotel to stay at is the QT Port Douglas (qtportdouglas.com.au) with its child-friendly pools, spacious rooms and kitchen facilities.
Like Cairns, Port Douglas is also near the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest, making it a great base from which to explore these adventure attractions.
Cairns is located in Queensland, which was first inhabited by Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. Hence, there is a tremendous emphasis on local cultures and traditions.
Your best introduction to an aboriginal culture is the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park (Karemunga Road, Caravonica Lakes), an exceptionally well-designed attraction that informs as much as it delights. You learn about bush food, hunting methods and ancient dance rituals. You get to play the didgeridoo (a long wind instrument), throw hunting spears and hone your boomerang skills.
Just next to the cultural park is the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway, a cable-car ride that glides over a 7.5km-long canopy of the gorgeous tropical rainforest. There are several stops where you can get off for guided tours of the various species of trees and plants found in the World Heritage-listed forest.
The ride eventually takes you to Kuranda Markets, where you will find an assortment of arts and crafts as well as fresh local produce. Once you have completed your shopping, hop on the Kuranda Scenic Rail train back to Cairns. The picturesque train ride takes you past rivers, waterfalls, rainforests and the jaw-dropping Barron Gorge.
To complete the local experience, have dinner at Cairns' Ochre Restaurant (43 Shields Street), arguably the best restaurant in the city. Its menu combines bush food with modern cuisine, and the results are impressive. As a large group, we ordered a dozen dishes, and every single one of them surprised and pleased our varying palates with its unique fusion flavours.
The antipasto alone should pique your interest - it includes kangaroo terrine, emu carpaccio and smoked crocodile. Yum.
THE BUSINESS TIMES
The writer was a guest of Tourism & Events Queensland and SilkAir. SilkAir flies direct to Cairns on Saturdays, and via Darwin on Mondays and Thursdays.